De-Escalation Tip of the Day: Respect Personal Space

September 19, 2017
Hands clasped together

Early this summer, the Chicago Tribune shared an op-ed bemoaning the increasing lack of personal space in restaurants. The trend of “European concept” café-style dining, paired with an urgency to turn over tables more rapidly, has resulted in an eatery phenomenon of packed, communal-style seating that in some cases leaves as little as eight inches between tables. In one incident, a restaurant critic found himself amazed by the softness of a particular establishment’s napkins—which was when he discovered he was actually using the cashmere scarf of the woman at the table next to him.
Even in a good-humored situation, you can’t avoid the awkwardness (or potential dry-cleaning expenses) of invading somebody else’s personal space. The current spate of too-close-for-comfort restaurant encounters supports recent sociological research findings—what works in parts of southern Europe doesn’t necessarily go over so well in the United States or Asia. Culture, gender, age, and ethnicity are all factors when it comes to personal space—the accepted distance between two strangers in South America is probably too close for comfort for good friends in Scandinavia. A lack of personal space can add tension to even the most benign social or professional situation.
But you already knew this if you’ve ever had to take public transportation during rush hour, wait out a long TSA line at the airport, or attempted to do your Christmas shopping the morning after Thanksgiving.
CPI’s own extensive research indicates that not only should you err on the side of more personal space than less, but you should also try to stand at a slight angle to the person you’re attempting to de-escalate versus approach them head-on. We call it a Supportive Stance, in which staff try to keep at least 1.5 to three feet between themselves and the person in crisis. Not only does it help promote your collective safety, but it also defuses tension by communicating your non-threatening intent to somebody who is already feeling extremely vulnerable.
That’s why another top CPI de-escalation tip is: Respect personal space.
When it comes to de-escalation, the simplest and subtlest choices can often have profound transformational power over a stressful situation. When somebody gets in your face with an outburst, that initial rush of adrenaline may trigger an instinctual urge to shout back or lash out defensively. By training ourselves to not immediately become confrontational when challenged, and choosing instead to respect personal space, we create the potential for nonviolent crisis prevention and reduce the risk of escalation.

Taking a step back makes room for a crisis situation to correct its course.

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